Why There Is So Much Anger
TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 11 Jun 2018
7 Jun 2018 – Wherever we turn, people are angry. In France and United States where I live, voters are angry and turn their anger against immigrants and people of color. And they vote for the Front National and for Donald Trump. And the struggle in the US between students protesting against school massacres and linking them to gun sales, on the one hand, and the National Rifle Association (NRA), on the other hand, is fueled by anger on both sides.
To understand this, I go back to the studies I did as a scientist which are summarized in an Internet book called The Aggression Systems.
Of special importance is the analysis of how the aggressive behavior of our animal ancestors was transformed through the course of evolution into the human behavior of “righteous indignation against perceived injustice.” Here is a technical analysis from one of my scientific papers translated into more simple language:
Over the course of evolution the aggressive behavior common to all mammalian ancestors was modified and has come to serve many functions in human beings, including the way people make history.
- The first modification concerned the kinds of stimuli that provoked aggression. In our most ancient animal ancestors, the stimuli consisted of permanent qualities of the other animal. For example, males attacked other males because of their male odor. Over the course of evolution, and especially in our primate ancestors, aggression came to be stimulated as well by the actions of the other animal. For example, among the monkeys of Japan, the dominant male will attack young animals if they approach the traps that have been set by the scientists who study these animals.
- A second modification that we can also see in the Japanese monkeys consists of a process of internalization by which the young animal learns which actions are to be punished. This corresponds to the human “superego”, i.e. learning what behavior is “good or bad.” When they become adults, these monkeys reproduce the punishment they received by punishing young animals that show “bad” behavior, for example going too close to the traps. Note here that we need to recognize the importance of “punishment” in the course of human evolution. We see its effect in the anger of children when they cry out “that’s not fair !”
- A third modification, which takes place only at the level of human society, is the ability to conceptualize institutions and social systems and to respond to their actions with punishment and anger, just as one might respond to the “bad” actions of another individual.
- Fourth, and, finally, there is the ability to incorporate this “righteous indignation” into a complex pattern of consciousness development, including action, affiliation and analysis by which individuals become powerful forces in history.” In the case of great peace activists, such as Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, their righteous indignation became the emotion that fueled their social activism.
Here, it is important to recognize that the anger of righteous indignation is directed not at some abstract social injustice, but rather at the perceived injustice in the eyes of the person concerned. If the person concerned believes that social ills are caused by immigrants or people of color or of women who seek abortion, then their “righteous indignation” is directed against them. Those who vote for LePen in France or Trump in the United States are often motivated by their anger against immigrants and people of color as well as against “establishment” political parties whom they perceive to be favoring these immigrants and people of color. If the person believes that sales of assault rifles leads to school massacres, then their righteous indignation may be directed against the NRA. On the other hand, NRA members believe they are protecting the American Constitution which gives citizens the right to bear arms. It is important to keep in mind here that another person’s perception of injustice may be very different than your own.
Let me return here to the initial question, why is there so much anger at this period of history? The reason is simple. There is more injustice now. The rich have become richer and the poor have become poorer. There is more inequality and there is more exploitation. There are more people displaced by war and more preparation for new wars. These problems are perceived in different ways by different people. But they are perceived!
There was a time, a few generations ago, when many poor and working people adhered to socialist or communist trade unions and political parties that convinced them that they should be united across the lines of social class and ethnic origin and that they should direct their anger against the boss or the capitalist system. But militant trade unions and communist parties have been greatly weakened, and the people they would have recruited in an earlier era are now recruited by populist politicians and media who divide and rule by blaming immigrants or people of color for the deteriorating standard of living of the poor and working people.
I am not writing this in order to excuse racism and xenophobia, but rather to help us all understand the profound crisis in which we find our world. It will not help for us to attack the anger of the people. That will further divide us. Instead, to quote Martin Luther King, “the supreme task is to organize and unite people so that their anger becomes a transforming force.” We don’t have to look far to find an example of how this can be done. The Poor People’s Campaign that is underway now in the United States takes its inspiration directly from Martin Luther King to organize and unite people against “the evils of systemic racism, poverty, the war economy, ecological devastation and the nation’s distorted morality.“
Dr. David Adams is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment and coordinator of the Culture of Peace News Network. He retired in 2001 from UNESCO where he was the Director of the Unit for the UN International Year for the Culture of Peace. Previously, at Yale and Wesleyan Universities, he was a specialist on the brain mechanisms of aggressive behavior, the history of the culture of war, and the psychology of peace activists, and he helped to develop and publicize the Seville Statement on Violence. Send him an email.
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